COLUMN ONE : The Slide From Cop to Criminal : They were once the elite of the war on drugs. They busted bad guys, won awards and seized millions in illicit money. But along the way they succumbed to greed and lawlessness.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One night in September, 1989, Sheriff's Sgt. Robert Sobel told his wife he was leaving their Westminster home to buy a pack of cigarettes. Instead, he drove straight toward the ocean, with $12,000 in stolen drug money and thoughts of suicide.

Only hours earlier, the $100 bills were hidden in a roll-top desk, overlooked by investigators searching Sobel's house. Now, he was intent on ridding himself of the tainted cash.

Parking near the Long Beach Marina, Sobel walked to a bridge over the dark water and flung the package of bills into the ocean. He watched as they sank, then drove to a nearby berth where he boarded his sailboat, a 34-footer purchased with skimmed drug money.

Inside the cabin, Sobel unzipped a black bag and took out his 9-millimeter Beretta. He slid the pistol under his chin and cocked the hammer. In the distance, through a porthole, he could see the lights in the marina. Weeping, he grabbed the gun with both hands and shoved the barrel into his mouth, his finger curled around the trigger. But he could not squeeze it.

Minutes passed before Sobel put the gun down, engaged the safety and tossed the Beretta onto the bunk. Then he walked outside into the brisk night air--intent on breaking the code of silence he had followed during two decades as a sheriff's deputy.

Four years later, Sobel's decision to cooperate with federal prosecutors--and to testify against fellow narcotics officers--has helped unravel one of the worst scandals in local law enforcement history.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department became yet another police agency to fall under the scourge of corruption. With surprising swiftness, greed and lawlessness had taken root among a trusted corps of narcotics officers and spread within a department once considered incorruptible.

Played out in the country's cocaine capital, the affair demonstrated tragic pitfalls of drug enforcement work in the past decade. Experienced and much-decorated law officers succumbed to temptation while capturing millions of dollars in illicit drug proceeds for county and federal coffers. They bent the law and their own rules to put suspects behind bars. And, seeing themselves as unsung, underpaid warriors, they stole.

In all, 19 present or former deputies have been convicted of money skimming and other charges, several other officers are awaiting trial and a half-dozen family members or friends have been convicted or indicted in what has been dubbed Operation Big Spender.

Throughout the case, the 48-year-old Sobel has emerged as the central figure, lauded by some as a West Coast Serpico, vilified by others as a crooked cop who betrayed his brethren to save himself. Now serving a six-month prison sentence, he was the first deputy to admit that narcotics officers were raking off drug money. He was the first to cooperate with government investigators. He was the first to blame a "street justice" culture among deputies for brutality and other misconduct in the nation's largest sheriff's department.

Sobel was not alone in his crimes or his recriminations.

Other deputies eventually stepped forward, including Eufrasio G. (Al) Cortez, a former California Narcotic Officer of the Year. Like Sobel, Cortez told a sordid story of elite anti-drug teams skimming more than $1 million in drug money, beating suspects, planting cocaine, falsifying search warrants, lying in police reports and perjuring themselves.

Why did these veteran law enforcement officers resort to crime? How could they flourish? How were they caught? And what were the ramifications of their crimes?

Relying on interviews with convicted deputies, family members, other narcotics officers, investigators and prosecutors--as well as on court transcripts and other documents--The Times has pieced together what took place in this hidden corner of the much-publicized war on drugs.

For some deputies, their misdeeds were sudden aberrations by officers with otherwise unblemished reputations. For others, the slide from cop to criminal was a gradual descent into what one called "the pits of hell." For Sobel and Cortez, their own plunges began not long after they embarked on their law enforcement careers.

The Initiation

Unlike many sheriff's recruits, Robert Rhee Sobel did not come from a family of cops, nor did he hunger for a law enforcement job. Raised in Northern California, Sobel was a Vietnam veteran of Russian and Korean descent. After a brief stint at UCLA, he worked for a telephone company and as a newspaper truck driver before friends suggested he try law enforcement.

Hired by the Sheriff's Department in 1970, Sobel found that he enjoyed police work and finished third in his academy class. He relished the responsibility of upholding the law and the adrenalin rush that came from pursuing criminals.

"We showed up at the front door, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and we were going to save the world, do things by the book," Sobel said in an interview. "That changed when we saw how things really were on the outside."

What Sobel and other new recruits experienced stripped away their idealism about police work. When he helped quell disturbances in East Los Angeles, Sobel was struck by the open hostility of the demonstrators, but he said he also was startled to see fellow officers respond with unwarranted force. On a later assignment to the Men's Central Jail, Sobel watched as deputies beat inmates for even minor infractions and violently braced them against walls. Like others, he held his tongue--newly baptized in the code of silence--and he rationalized the brutality as simply the way things were done in the real world.

In May, 1972, the young deputy was transferred to the busy Firestone station southeast of Los Angeles, known among deputies as a "ghetto station" but a choice assignment. Sobel thought he could make a name for himself there if he survived the initiation rites. Along with other trainees, he entered a boot camp environment where he was forbidden to talk to anyone except his training officer and was not trusted by many veteran deputies until he had proven his loyalty. That test came during his first weeks on patrol.

A distraught mother told Sobel and another officer that her two young children were missing and that she suspected a relative had abducted them. When the deputies arrived at the man's mobile home, they found him and another man sitting inside, clad in towels, surrounded by child pornography magazines. Nearby, the two children cowered. The men denied any wrongdoing but were arrested.

Later, Sobel asked the other officer what to include in his police report. He was instructed to strengthen the case by writing that the deputies had witnessed the men engaged in a sex act with each other. Sobel complied after the officer assured him that he would not have to repeat that lie in court. When the preliminary hearing date arrived, however, the deputy failed to appear, leaving only Sobel to vouch for the false police report.

"That was my big test," he recalled.

"I was so scared, I was ready to throw up. I thought for sure someone would find out, but the (prosecutor) came out afterward and said 'good job.' "

It was a defining moment in Sobel's career. "I remember saying at the time that I would never do that again. . . ," he said. "But I did."

The Model Narc

Eufrasio G. (Al) Cortez had long dreamed of a law enforcement career. On his third try, he was hired by the Sheriff's Department in 1975. He quickly advanced from patrol deputy to narcotics detective--and excelled. While two younger brothers followed in his footsteps as deputies, Cortez picked up awards and commendations.

In 1982, he was honored by the Antelope Valley City Council for his anti-drug efforts. His department commended him for helping deputies learn Spanish and teaching them the ways of street gangs. He also won a bravery citation after he was wounded while executing a search warrant. Cortez was promoted to one of the department's elite drug investigation teams, known as the Major Violators crew. In 1984, he won the prestigious Officer of the Year award from the California Narcotic Officers Assn. for helping shut down an infamous but elusive PCP lab.

The awards cemented Cortez's belief that he had found his calling. But he also found police work had a dark side--a no-holds-barred approach to law enforcement that he came to view as an unavoidable part of his job. During his first assignment at the Central Jail's inmate reception center in Downtown Los Angeles, Cortez was teamed with an aggressive group of officers who reserved special treatment for problem inmates. According to Cortez's federal court testimony, these prisoners were taken handcuffed to a "recalcitrant cell," where deputies would take turns beating them. Sometimes, they would stuff an inmate's head in the toilet and flush. During his 3 1/2 years at the jail, Cortez said, he saw such attacks occur more than 30 times, and joined in several. If a prisoner complained, he and other officers would dispute the account.

Later, while on patrol, Cortez discovered another form of street justice. Cortez joined Los Angeles police and California Highway Patrol officers in beating two teen-age suspects after a 15-minute car chase. "Everybody got a turn at them," he testified.

"That was my first exposure to what I considered excessive force. . . . I was accepted as one of the individuals because I kept my mouth shut."

The two teen-agers in the car were black, and to the young deputy, it seemed that a number of brutality incidents involved black suspects:

There was the night in 1979 when a deputy was shot near Nickerson Gardens in central Los Angeles. Deputies began searching the housing project looking for the gunmen. And some of them dispensed with niceties.

"We would randomly pick up a black individual that appeared to look guilty and put them in the back seat of the car and then commence to try to beat information out of them or get them to confess," said Cortez, now 42. "Once (we) felt that the individual was not involved, then the (sheriff's) vehicle was stopped, and the individual was thrown out, and then we proceeded down the road and picked up another individual."

Pounding on doors, the officers searched homes and rousted residents. They stopped cars and upbraided motorists. At one point, Cortez watched as deputies yanked a driver from his vehicle and slugged him with a sand-filled leather sap. When an elderly black woman demanded to see a search warrant for her home, a deputy waved his six-inch revolver in her face. "This is all the search warrant we need, bitch," he told her.

"So, we went in, and we searched the location," Cortez recalled. "We didn't find anybody, and we left."

The Team Cashes In

Even before Cortez had started his patrol duties, Bob Sobel was rising through the ranks of the Sheriff's Department, moving from station to station across the county. Like Cortez, Sobel began focusing on anti-drug enforcement, and after he was promoted to sergeant, he was featured in a national news magazine talking about the rising cocaine trade in Los Angeles and detailing how the Sheriff's Department was combatting the problem. What Sobel did not tell the magazine was that combat sometimes was waged outside the rules.

The members of his own narcotics crew at Lennox station in the southwestern part of the county not only were good investigators, his half-dozen officers were feared, Sobel testified in federal court, because some would occasionally beat drug suspects and threaten informants. If there was no other way to solve cases, Sobel said, he and some of his deputies would shade the truth on search warrants and police reports.

"We did what we had to do," he said in an interview. "These were bad guys dealing drugs, and I suppose the ends justified the means."

At the same time, the deputies felt disadvantaged against heavily armed drug dealers working out of fortified crack houses. In need of more firepower and better equipment, the officers complained that the department was too slow to equip them. So some turned to creative financing in the mid-1980s.

The deputies kept a small "kitty" in Sobel's desk drawer and replenished it with cash taken during raids, Sobel testified. The money was used to buy handguns, protective vests and equipment such as a battering ram. It paid for informants and bought pizza and beer when the deputies celebrated drug busts and mockingly toasted the dealers for picking up the tab.

The deputies stole more than money. They snatched jewelry, rings and other trinkets that belonged to drug traffickers and their girlfriends, then gave them as presents to their own spouses and girlfriends. Some of Sobel's men even stole a set of security bars from a crack house and installed them on their trailer at Lennox station.

Across town, where Cortez worked in the Whittier narcotics bureau, he became aware that some deputies were taking home radios and television sets seized as evidence. Cortez later testified that he joined others in falsifying vouchers used to pay informants--called blue slips--and then pocketed the cash, sometimes as much as several hundred dollars. To them, it was just compensation for underpaid and unappreciated narcotics cops.

But to Cortez, that rationale soon was replaced by his own desire--and need--for easy cash. In 1984, he had filed for bankruptcy in federal court. He was divorced and paying child support for five children, and he was more than $10,000 in debt.

What began as petty thefts soon escalated to hundred-dollar skims and thousand-dollar rips. After raids, deputies were left alone with millions of dollars in uncounted cash. So, Cortez testified, he and other deputies secretly scooped hundreds of thousands of dollars into bags and boxes for themselves. By the end of 1986, he had received $60,000 to $80,000 in stolen cash. But less than three years later, his loot had swollen to more than half a million dollars.

In the meantime, he remarried and bought a spacious home in Chino Hills, vacation property in Bullhead City, a sleek speedboat and several cars, including a classic 1928 Model A Ford.

During those boom years, Cortez and Sobel joined forces as members of the prestigious Majors Two team, one of four squads that investigated the county's major drug traffickers and money launderers. Assigned to the narcotics bureau in Whittier, team members spent much of their time in the field and enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, as long as they produced. And the majors teams did precisely that.

In 1988, the several dozen officers on majors teams seized 4,470 pounds of cocaine and $13.6 million in cash--compared to 694 pounds and $2.1 million for the narcotics crews assigned to various stations. Under asset seizure laws, they put millions of dollars into the county coffers.

In a line of work where gutsy action and gung-ho dedication are admired, the teams were a particularly coveted assignment--and the members were among the most decorated and street savvy deputies. On the Majors Three team, for example, was Macario (Mac) Duran, who once went undercover and stung the same drug dealer twice for a million dollars each time. On the Majors Two team were Daniel M. Garner, one of the agency's best investigators, and John Dickenson, who won the department's Medal of Valor for trying to rescue his mortally wounded partner.

For his part, Cortez had developed a reputation as a smooth undercover officer who often posed as a money launderer in million-dollar cases. And Sobel, handpicked from 25 sergeants to head the Majors Two team, was nicknamed El Diablo--the Devil--and drove his deputies to adopt his hard-charging, pile-driving style of police work.

"Two days and we get the smell of blood," Sobel was quoted as saying in a newsletter for sheriff's narcotics officers. "It'll be like Jaws during a feeding frenzy! My men are all trained to tear flesh when they scent blood!"

Aggressiveness was only part of it. Sobel's crew members also were known for long surveillances, dogged investigations and well-placed informants. But what was not as widely known were some of the other methods they used, according to testimony by Sobel, Cortez and others. They sneaked a peek at a location before search warrants were obtained, moved or planted evidence to strengthen a case, doctored police reports and beat suspects.

Sobel condoned such practices. After all, it was the results that mattered, he reasoned, and Majors Two gained a reputation for successful busts and spectacular money seizures.

During their off hours, some members also won notoriety for their long drinking sessions and beer busts dubbed 924s, a radio code ordering deputies to report to their station. During one session, a soused crew member playfully pulled a gun on a slow-moving waiter and was later roughed up by his fellow deputies. On another night, Garner drunkenly urinated on the pants of an aspiring narcotics officer whom he did not think was worthy of the assignment.

After still another drinking bout, Garner and Cortez were with a woman they called "Yo Baby," the officers testified. When the bars closed, they had no place to go, so they took her to narcotics headquarters to show off a kilo of cocaine they had seized in a big raid. But, after they opened the bag and tapped some powder on the table, the woman suddenly leaned over and sniffed up the coke. The deputies were horrified that part of their evidence was gone. Cortez said he and another deputy later returned to get the rest of the cocaine and discarded it. The case had to be dropped.

Cortez, a nattily dressed deputy whose nickname was El Caballo, or the Horse, and Garner, a beefy deputy known as Rhino, were among the biggest carousers on the Majors Two team. They also were its unofficial leaders.

When Sobel arrived as their new sergeant, it was Cortez who compromised him by suggesting that Sobel break into a suspect's car by "slim jimming" the door and making sure that cocaine was inside the vehicle. And it was Garner who first told Sobel that some of his new colleagues were involved in thefts.

Sobel was asked to join Garner and another crew member at a local pub, where Garner told Sobel there was plenty of money to be made on Majors Two. He said some team members had been skimming for years. Then he leaned over, pulled Sobel toward him and suddenly gave his startled sergeant a full kiss on the lips, saying, "I can make you rich, baby."

Sobel was speechless, but he soon began sharing in the money stolen by his deputies, he testified. They split up the spoils in restaurant parking lots, outside the narcotics headquarters, in motel rooms and at the homes of deputies. When team members worked with other law enforcement agencies, the stolen cash was hidden until it could be retrieved. Occasionally, they got help from deputies outside their unit.

In one case, Cortez testified, he placed the stolen cash in two plastic bags and arranged for a fellow deputy, J. J. Castorena, to meet him. Cortez placed the bags in Castorena's patrol car and said he would pick them up later. Both officers resumed their duties. That night Cortez got his money and later gave Castorena $10,000 for his troubles.

At home, Cortez hid some of his cash behind a fire wall in his garage. He kept some money in his safe and spent the rest on houses, cars, and vacations in Hawaii and Mexico.

With his money, Sobel remodeled his house and bought the 34-foot Hunter sloop, a car for his wife, a piano, a computer system, stocks and bonds. Another crew member, Ronald Daub, purchased a speedboat, cars, a Peterbilt truck and a vacation home in Arizona. James Bauder paid for helicopter lessons and a part-interest in a racehorse.

They were living well, and a few deputies even were grumbling that ostentatious spending by others was jeopardizing their safety. The Majors Two crew ended 1988 with a luxurious holiday dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point. Some deputies arrived in a rented limousine. Others ordered Dom Perignon for dinner. At one point that evening, Garner showed off a new revolver with dollar signs engraved on the pearl handle and jewels encrusted along the barrel. It was a gun, he said, like those carried by Colombian drug dealers. And in a delicious irony, he had purchased it with money stolen from a drug dealer.

As they toasted the old year and welcomed the new, the deputies were content and cocky. They were busting bad guys--and getting wealthier in the process. What could go wrong?

NEXT: THE INVESTIGATION

The Team

Major Violators Two was among four elite anti-drug teams of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department that handled the largest narcotics and money-laundering cases. Crew members were highly decorated and experienced deputies who worked out of the narcotics bureau in Whittier. The team members included:

ROBERT SOBEL

* The sergeant of Major Violators Two, he was known as "El Diablo" for his hard-charging style and for relentlessly driving his team members.

EUFRASIO (AL) CORTEZ

* Once named California narcotics officer of the year by a statewide law enforcement group, he was a savvy undercover cop who also posed as a money-launderer for federal agencies.

DANIEL GARNER

* An 18-year sheriff's veteran, he had a reputation as one of the department's top drug investigators and was considered one of the leaders of the Majors Two team.

JAMES BAUDER

* Son of a sheriff's lieutenant, he was the least experienced member of the Majors Two team but one of the most enthusiastic. He often handled surveillance.

RONALD DAUB

* A 16-year sheriff's deputy, he was a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam and worked at several stations before joining the narcotics bureau.

About This Series

Millions of dollars were stolen. Nineteen narcotics deputies were convicted. And the image of the nation's largest sheriff's department was shattered during a drug money-skimming scandal. "Breach of Trust," a three-part series, reveals the stories of the deputies who turned to crime and the investigators who caught them. During a six-month investigation, Times staff writer Victor Merina examined thousands of pages of court transcripts, government records and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department documents. He interviewed scores of deputies, investigators and other participants in the money-skimming case. What emerged is a profile of corruption and greed that flourished in elite units of a law enforcement agency that had long prided itself on integrity.

* Today: Crossing the line

* Thursday: Inside the investigation

* Friday: The cost of corruption

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